Derek “Deke” Denmead grills chicken in the author’s backyard to his own, tasty specifications. (Photo by April Lisante)

by April Lisante

Derek Denmead was a University of Pennsylvania student in his 20s when he discovered he had a serious penchant for cooking up Southern barbecue.

It all happened during the year he spent teaching seventh-grade social studies in Sandersville, Georgia. He loved to eat the home-style food in the tiny East Central Georgia town, but before long, he was cooking up pork shoulders, collard greens and everything in between. He returned to Philly with some barbecue prowess and spent the next two decades honing his craft to perfection.

Today, barbecue devotees from Chestnut Hill to Germantown, Manayunk to Mt. Airy know Denmead as “Deke,” smoke master extraordinaire and owner of the cozy joint Deke’s Bar-B-Que at 4901 Ridge Ave. Chicken, brisket cheesesteaks, ribs – he does it all. He and his wife, Jackie McBeth, have created a local barbecue hotspot, and can also be spotted at special events in their food truck.

“Living in the South for a year, that’ll do it – you learn to make collard greens and real barbecue,” said Denmead, who also plans to open his first full-service, 4,000-square-foot restaurant and bar in Germantown across from the Wayne Junction train station at the end of this year.

So with this being Fourth of July week, I thought what better way to get prepped for the holiday than with a one-on-one barbecue tutorial with Denmead himself. To get in that holiday barbecue spirit, I convinced him to come over to my backyard and show me his favorite tricks, tips and recipes.

Admittedly, my own barbecue skills are seriously lacking. (I think boneless chicken breasts charred to imperfection and slathered with store-bought sauce on a typical weeknight passes muster.)

Denmead was there to help. He envisioned a Fourth of July that could go beyond burgers and dogs on my low-end gas grill. He honed his tutorial for the average reader who might not have an industrial smoker, Viking grill or full outdoor kitchen. But this was barbecue, after all, not grilling. So he did what any barbecue guru would do: he turned my basic little two-burner Weber gas grill into a barbecue pit, and we made some ribbon-worthy smoked chicken in under two hours.

Here’s a look at his step-by-step approach to making chicken, but you can substitute ribs as well.

THE PREP

First, we started with fresh chicken drumsticks and thighs, about three pounds of meat total. Denmead dry rubs his meats first and doesn’t use marinades, so he applied his special top-secret dry rub, Deke’s Dust, and refrigerated the chicken overnight in a plastic baggie.

His basic dry rub is a secret recipe, but he says all Memphis-style dry rubs must have at least these five key ingredients: Kosher or coarse salt, ground fresh pepper, paprika, cayenne and brown sugar. He adds the ingredients a teaspoon at a time and taste-tests it as he goes along. You can add other dry spices based on your preferences, for example, rosemary and oregano for a Mediterranean rub, or curry and dried ginger for Indian and Chinese five spice for an Asian flavor.

THE GRILL

When it is time to grill, leave chicken out at room temperature for about a half-hour to an hour. This helps decrease cooking time.

To prep your gas grill, simply light one side of the grates/burners and leave the other side unlit. On the side that is lit, place a small aluminum container (a muffin-size tin works) filled with hickory or apple chips. You can pre-soak the chips and simply poke holes in the aluminum container, light the chips and cover the tin with aluminum foil. Lay the tin directly on the flame beneath grates.

When the wood chips begin to emit a thin, blue smoke, and the grill reaches about 250 degrees, it’s time to get the chicken on there.

And here is the most critical step in Denmead’s barbecue repertoire: “Indirect heat. What confuses most people is we are cooking the wood chips and putting the meat where there is no flame. It’s counter-intuitive, but this is barbecue,” he said.

That said, the chicken lays skin up, bone down on the grills or grates where there is no flame directly below. Once the chicken is on and the chips are smoking from the lit side of the grill, cover the top and let it cook for about 90 minutes.

When the chicken is completely done, it will register 165 to 170 degrees, a must for chicken. (Beef burgers and steaks can range from 125 for rare to 165 for well done.) Pork shoulders and briskets are done the same way as the chicken, but can take up to 12 hours and must reach 190 degrees for that fall-off-the -bone consistency. These eight to 12-pound cuts of meat are barbecue fare for the more adventurous chef.

“I stuck with chicken as something the home chef can easily do,” Denmead said.

Only when the chicken is finished cooking and is off the grill does Denmead apply his special barbecue sauces.

“Applying it earlier, I find it burns,” he said.

Finally, he likes to wait until the chicken reaches a cooler temperature and the juices seal in before serving it with dipping sauces.

Deke’s Favorite Barbecue Sauce
6 oz. ketchup
2 oz. mustard
1 tsp. horseradish
1 tsp. hot sauce
1 Tbl. Worcestershire sauce
2 Tbl. brown sugar mixed with hot water to create a slurry
1 Tbl. dry rub of choice

The Western North Carolina “Dip” Sauce
Start with 4 oz. barbecue sauce as a base and add an equal amount of apple cider vinegar. Stir until combined. Serve over top of cooked chicken or pork shoulder

Deep South ‘Bama Sauce
1 cup mayo
1 Tbl. cider vinegar
1 Tbl. honey
1 Tbl. favorite dry rub
Mix all ingredients until combined and use to dip chicken when chicken is served.

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